Get behind the curtain for Augmented Reality

The world is being inundated with a steady flow of gadgets and apps influencing every imaginable aspect of our lives. While we have many things to thank for this situation, from the scientific method to creativity, individual courage, and the free market, when you get behind the curtain and under the covers, it is the acceptance and implementation of standards – open and proprietary, de facto and de jure – that enable everything to scale and exist in volume.

The Internet could not exist without standards. Thanks to communication protocols from FTP to HTTP, programming languages from C to Java, markup languages from HTML to XML and everything in-between, we have a computing environment that allows for the reliable development of hardware and software that increasingly doesn’t need to care too much about anything beyond the immediate problem being solved.

While the world of Virtual / Augmented / Mixed Reality, herein referred to as xR, is built upon a large foundation of technology standards, there are precious few standards in existence specifically related to xR itself.  xR currently lives in a world similar to the early days of Internet Browsers, where sites would proudly display messages like “This site works best when viewed with xxxx”.  A living example of “standards free” development is terrific VR 3D paint programs, like Tilt Brush and PaintLab, being tied to only one or two VR headsets. While this is beneficial for the few supported VR headset suppliers, users suffer from a lack of options and the market is constrained.

Put very simply, lack of standardisation forces developers to spend resources on common underlying technical issues and not on features that will uniquely differentiate their products.  This reduces the breadth of available products and ultimately inhibits market growth. While the high end of the market is typically driven by innovation, the low end is driven by price, and it is the low end that creates the volume.  High volume and scaling, however, demand standardisation.

If you want to create an AR experience to help market your product, every AR tool vendor currently requires that you either use their branded AR scanner or create a white label AR scanner under your logo.  Nowhere are you able to create an AR experience that will run under Chrome, Edge, Firefox or IE, much less a generic AR scanner.

An application that runs on the HTC Vive may or may not run on the Oculus Rift.  An application that runs on the HoloLens will most certainly not run on ODG, Meta or DAQRI devices. When Apple finally enters the xR market, I will be drop-dead surprised if they don’t have a hermetically sealed ecosystem surrounding their products.  Because of this, the development community is forced to choose which devices they will support and customers’ CTOs / CIOs / CFOs will be reluctant to invest in technology that has a vendor lock-in.  You can bet that their first development dollars will go to the interface that has the broadest market potential, which in the end means the most standardised.

Because the most common standard is Android-Wear API, we automatically have a situation where Apple and Microsoft will be compelled to choose different, competing, APIs.  In the end, we once again have a re-creation of the Smartphone OS triumvirate of Android, iOS and Windows that we currently suffer under.  Who has the lion’s share of the Smartphone market? Android.  Why?  Because it is open.  It has become the de-facto standard for any Smartphone manufacturer that isn’t named Apple or Microsoft.

Interestingly, I have met people in the xR community who feel that xR standards aren’t needed.  For them, we live in an app based world and everyone accepts the fact that each xR experience will require yet another app.  They are confident that this will not change.

I disagree.  If we expect xR to explode, it will do so only with a consumer market.  Decades of experience have taught us that most consumers value convenience above all else.  A convenient xR world is one that is seamless, where every app works on every device and a generic xR app can be used to capture external triggers and invoke geolocated or marker / object driven experiences.

If nothing else, this article is a call to all developers engaged in xR to vigorously support what little standards work that is currently going on.  While standards work may be some of the least glamorous work in the community, it is absolutely the single most critical work that is needed to help our market grow.  So, my call to you – actively get behind the curtain and under the covers for xR standards, allocate a fixed % of your development resources to support and drive standards development.  If anything will put the brakes on xR market development, it will be a lack of standards, not a lack of opportunity.

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